It Didn't Start with Babes in Toyland: A Short and Eccentric History of Women in Local Music, 1931-Present
For most people, the phrase "women in Minneapolis music" conjures a very specific image: knee-high boots stomping out a beat, long hair whipping across a microphone, lyrics ranging from confident to catty—in other words, the riotous rock bands from 15 years ago, known as much for gumption as talent. Back then, the habit of noticing female musicians as if they were a recently discovered life form wasn't confined to the Twin Cities; music rags across the country went wide-eyed and slack-jawed at the thought of girls who—wait 'til you hear this—play guitar.
Even today, the early '90s are considered the defining era for women in Minnesota music. I know, because the first thing plenty of music-savvy people said when they heard about my quest to identify landmark promoters/contributors to the scene was, "You have to write about [insert band from the '90s]!" Is this what the history has been reduced to? Kat Bjelland struck a chord and legions of female artists sprung forth like Athena hacking an escape route through Zeus's forehead? That just doesn't seem fair. So I went looking for the others—the jazz singers, club owners, accordion players, booking agents, DJs—who deserved as much appreciation and notoriety as a few fleeting pages of newsprint can afford.
This is by no means a comprehensive history. The '90s boom alone would require a six-part series, heavy with footnotes, interviews, genealogical trees, and Venn diagrams. Instead, I looked for those who made a real impact on the Twin Cities, and maybe drew a little national attention while they were at it. The goal was to stick to the women who contributed to the local community, not those who skipped town at the age of four and slipped into the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame on a birth certificate technicality (sorry, Ms. Gumm/Garland). In that spirit, it seemed appropriate to start out with one of the most successful female groups in music history. Patty Andrews, the sole remaining member of the famed sibling trio, recently turned 88—a mere 75 years after her big break on Hennepin Avenue.
1931: The Andrews Sisters perform in a children's revue at the Orpheum Theater, which leads to their first national tour. This marks the beginning of a career that includes the sale of more than 90 million records, and the first platinum record ever earned by an all-female group. They become a hit on the silver screen (performing alongside Abbott & Costello, Bing Crosby, and Bob Hope) and on USO tours where they sing their biggest hits: "Bei Mir Bist du Schön," "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy," and "Rum and Coca-Cola."
City Pages:When did you start singing?
Patty Andrews: I started singing when I was five but we went on the road when I was about 13. All three of us sang individually and then Maxene and I sang duos. And one day LaVerne decided to sing with us because she was the low voice. We used to copy the Boswell Sisters. They were a very, very famous trio in the '30s. We did a couple of their songs. Everybody starts out mimicking somebody.
CP:I read somewhere that you were born in Mound but grew up in Minneapolis.
Andrews: No, no, no. Let's get this cleared up once and for all. We were born in Minneapolis, we lived in north Minneapolis, but we used to go to Mound because our uncles were there and our grandmother's house was there. We used to go there every summer as kids. When we were out on the road, whenever we had time open we'd come back to Mound and spend it there at our uncles' grocery store. That came in handy when you weren't working.... You're supposed to laugh there, okay?
CP:So when you weren't busy being world-famous singers, you bagged groceries?
Andrews: [Laughs] Right, that's a cute way of putting it.
CP:Tell me about your first big show at the Orpheum.
Andrews: We were working in a kiddie revue put on by a dancing school. They had a show on for one full week at the Orpheum Theater and we were part of that show. The dancing schools put those shows on quite a bit and ours was called the Knickerbocker Dancing School. The man who was headlining was Larry Rich. He was the big star performer. He heard us sing and got in touch with our mother and father and said he'd like to sign us up for his touring show, which we did the following winter. We joined him and were in the business ever since. We went on the RKO circuit—that was all the RKO theaters around the country.
CP:Were you nervous about getting up onstage in front of all those people?
Andrews: It never occurred to us. When you're young, you don't think of that most of the time. You're just so eager and so happy to get out there that I think the nervousness doesn't occur to young people.
CP:Where else in Minneapolis did you perform?
Andrews: It was just at the Orpheum Theater, but when we were children we performed at benefits around town. Professionally, we didn't have any other jobs in Minneapolis.
CP:So did you enjoy being on the road?
Andrews: That's what you did during that time. We just worked in the business because you had to get a job. Those were bad times financially in this country. But we loved it and our mother and father were with us. My mother did the cooking so we didn't have to worry about that, and Dad drove us from engagement to engagement. Doesn't it sound exciting?
CP:Very. Did you ever come back?
Andrews: Periodically, when we were out of work, we'd come back to Minneapolis. And we'd stay in Mound for a while. As kids we loved it out there, swimming in Lake Minnetonka. When you're starving, the best thing to do is go swimming! But when we became very well known, then we were always on the road.
1938: WCCO Radio hires high school junior Jeanne Arland Peterson (see p.17) to sing and play piano on the air. She keeps this after-school job for 22 years. Peterson later instills in her children a love of music, producing a family of professionals: Ricky, Patty, Billy, and "St. Paul" work in various capacities with artists including Prince, Donny Osmond, Steve Miller, and David Sanborn.
City Pages:How does a high school student land a job in radio?
Jeanne Arland Peterson: I started singing with a band my brother played with at age 15. We used to do remote radio broadcasts and 'CCO heard me. That's how I got the job. I went over there and started singing on some of the early shows with quartets and trios. And then I got my own show with Bob DeHaven—Breakfast with Bob at quarter to nine in the morning for many years. That was my second home. We got to be well acquainted with the singers and musicians and emcees. It was always fun to go down there.
CP:You became an organist for the Twins later on.
Peterson: My husband was the first organist for the Twins, and he died in '69 on opening day. They found someone to replace him for a few days, and then I did it for three years. My kids were little, so I'd bring them up there with me. It was a good time. I was in the same room as Bob Casey, the field announcer.
CP:Were you a baseball fan?
Peterson: Absolutely, and it was at the old [stadium] where they played outdoors, the way baseball should be.
1940s: Las Hermanas Rangel (the Rangel Sisters) start out performing Mexican ballads on St. Paul's West Side—though by the end of the decade, they've switched to Caribbean music (mambos and cha-chas), which is more popular with the local Latino community. Over the years, the sisters perform together in various incarnations: Los Rumbaleros, Las Sieta Notas, and with their brother in the Kiko Rangel Band.
1948: More than 40 years' worth of Frances Densmore's Native American recordings (about 2,400 of them, in all) are transferred from wax cylinders to discs. The 81-year-old Red Wing ethnomusicologist supervises the process. She began the collection in 1906 after buying an Edison recording machine with a $150 grant from the Smithsonian Institution. A pioneer in music archiving, Densmore recorded the songs of dozens of tribes, and conducted in-depth studies on the music of the Chippewas.
1950: Lois Best Herman plays Hammond organ in the Jules Herman Orchestra, the house band at St. Paul's Prom Ballroom. She and her husband met in the Lawrence Welk Orchestra, where Jules played trumpet and Lois was the group's first "Champagne Lady." Soon afterward they left, however, because Welk didn't think his female showpiece should be married. The couple plays at the Prom for the next 35 years.
1956: Ardis Wells and the Rhythm Ranch Gals, quite possibly the first all-girl western band in the country, begin playing regularly at the Flame Bar. Nicknamed "The Yodeling Sweetheart," Wells comes from a family of performers and has spent years following circuses. She has also made a name for herself as a trapeze artist and wrestler in St. Paul. The singer/guitarist's group includes accordionist Jan North, banjo player Fern Dale, and bassist Patti Williams. Years later, when the group's lineup changes and men join the ensemble, they're renamed the Rhythm Ranch Pals.
1960s: Breaking down racial barriers, Ermine Hall Allen becomes the first black singer to perform with the St. Paul Civic Opera. At a mere 4'9", the contralto is quickly dubbed "the vest-pocket Marian Anderson." Allen is also known for her a cappella renditions of African American spirituals.
1969: North Minneapolis jazz singer Shirley Witherspoon begins a one-year stint with the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Her very first gig with Ellington is Richard Nixon's inaugural ball. Though Witherspoon would move to California (and later Baltimore), she continues to return to Minneapolis periodically. Throughout the '80s and '90s, she has a successful local career, performing solo club shows as well as theatrical tributes to Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith.
1970: Women's Auxiliary of the Minneapolis Musicians Association Vice President Dolores Del-Rae launches "Musical Instruments for Kids Week," an annual secondhand instrument collection for underprivileged youngsters. The jazz musician started out in the '50s, playing accordion and piano at the Sheraton-Ritz Hotel's Golliwog Lounge.
1970: Wanda Davis records a cover of Aretha Franklin's "Save Me." Over 30 years later, the U.K.'s Jazzman Records releases the song on a compilation called Midwest Funk, while the original 45 released by Project Soul is a hard-to-find collector's item fetching up to $500.
1974: Marilyn Sellars, who got her start singing at the Ambassador Motel in St. Louis Park, has a crossover hit with the Kris Kristofferson and Marijohn Wilkin-penned "One Day at a Time." The track peaks at #19 on the country charts and #37 pop. Although Lena Martel, Cristy Lane, and Willie Nelson later record the song, Sellars's version is the first and sells over a million copies.
1975: Accordion player Ruth Adams forms the World's Most Dangerous Polka Band. They begin a three-night-a-week stint at Nye's Polonaise that continues today.
1975: Sue McLean begins her event-planning career by booking the first Suicide Commandos show—at a high school prom ("It was an angry prom," she says). McLean works for the Guthrie Theater before starting her own booking agency in 1997. In addition to day-to-day club booking, Sue McLean and Associates are responsible for some of the cities' favorite annual events, including the Basilica Block Party and the Music in the Zoo concert series.
1980: Lipps Inc.'s "Funkytown" is the number one song in the country for four weeks, thanks in part to vocals by Cynthia Johnson, former Flyte Tyme saxophonist and Miss Black Minnesota 1976. Though Johnson leaves the group in '83, she continues to perform occasional solo shows at Rossi's Blue Note today.
1983: Tetes Noires play their first show, at the Pride Festival in Loring Park. The unconventional sextet (featuring bassist/vocalist Cynthia Bartell, pianist/keyboardist Angela Frucci, guitarist/vocalist Renee Kayon, guitarist Polly Alexander, violinist/vocalist Jennifer Holt, and vocalist/keyboardist Camille Gage) is the first all-female rock band in town. Their spiritual and protest folk-inspired sound encompasses violin, handheld percussion, children's toys, four-part vocal harmonies, and an unofficial seventh member—a 1950s drum machine. "I remember playing that show in the ugliest outfit you can imagine," says Gage. "I look at it now and wonder what I was thinking. We were all nervous. What we were doing was very unusual. The music was unusual. What was frustrating is that you reach a point where you want people to listen to the music and get past the novelty aspect and pay attention, which I think people did relatively quickly."
1985: Former First Avenue production manager Maggie MacPherson starts booking the Uptown Bar. Her 11-year run is considered something of a golden era for the club, which hosts the first local gigs by Nirvana, Oasis, and the Flaming Lips. "It was the formidable years of alternative music," says MacPherson. "The Flaming Lips would come in and do bubble machines and laser machines and light machines and every machine known to man. The room would be completely sold out, and there'd be people packed on the sidewalks staring in the windows."
1986: The Jets, an eight-member sibling act, hit #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 with "Crush on You." Elizabeth Wolfgramm was the second-youngest in the group.
City Pages:Whose idea was it to form a group?
Elizabeth Wolfgramm: We started performing a Polynesian revue show in 1977 as a family. Our mother was the lead singer, and we'd come out and do dances from the islands. We started in Salt Lake City, Utah, but we were on the road for years doing the revue wherever we could find work. We weren't making any money doing the Polynesian thing.
In about '82 we came to Minneapolis, where only the hotels took us in. Just to survive, we switched over to playing Top 40 music. We named ourselves Quasar. If it was a rock club, we'd play rock; if it was a country club, we'd play country music. We'd heard of Don Powell, who used to work for Motown and lived in Minneapolis. My parents kept pestering him to come and watch us, and finally he came out and liked what he saw. He made a big investment in our family and our group. Within the year, we switched our name to the Jets, recorded a demo tape with him, and did a couple songs where he was able to get Boy George to come out and produce some of the tracks for us.
CP:Was there a point when you realized how popular you'd become?
Wolfgramm: One of our first big shows was opening for Tina Turner in Iowa. I think I was 12 or 13, and I remember feeling like the hard work we were doing was paying off. We did about 250 shows a year, traveling nonstop. Being one of the younger ones, I just thought every kid did it. It wasn't work. It was fun. Instead of being in a classroom, I was traveling the world, seeing these places and working with really talented people, especially in Minneapolis itself where we recorded at Prince's studio. I don't think I realized our success until I got older. I look back and I see what we did and people who are familiar with our music and they still play the songs, which I'm amazed at, on lite stations.
1987: Bernadette Anderson, the woman known for welcoming a teenage Prince into her home, opens Bernadette's, a hip-hop club for teens, in the Uptown YWCA. Anderson's son Andre (professional name: Andre Cymone) had played bass in an early incarnation of Prince's band, but left in 1981 to pursue a solo career.
1989: "Calling You," as sung by Jevetta Steele on the soundtrack of the movie Baghdad Café, is nominated for an Oscar alongside Carly Simon's "Let the River Run" and Phil Collins's "Two Hearts." Simon's song (from Working Girl) wins the prize.
City Pages:Do you remember what you were doing when you heard about the nomination?
Jevetta Steele: I was standing in my living room, I was about eight months pregnant, I was vacuuming, and I saw it on Siskel and Ebert. And when I went to sit down, the phone starting jumping off the hook. I was getting calls from my manager, and I had a lot of friends who were in the press at that time and they were saying, "I can't believe this. This came across the wire and your name is on it." I thought, wow, that's bizarre.
CP:Normally the nominated songs are performed live at the awards show. But they didn't do that in '89.
Steele: That was the first year that they hadn't done it. The only reason why we didn't perform was because Carly Simon had severe stage fright. So neither myself, Phil Collins, nor Carly performed that year because of it. If we all didn't perform, no one could. I was very, very pregnant, so I was okay with it.
1989: Shampel C (a.k.a. Sheryl Jackson) becomes the first female rapper in town to cut a track. Wide Angle Records puts out a 12" single of "G-G-Get on Down" and "Posse in Effect." Jackson now lives in California where she raps under the name "Pain."
1991: Local music rag Cake tells Jessica Hopper she's too young to write for them. So the high school freshman launches a handwritten zine called Hit It or Quit It. The first issue features interviews with Walt Mink and the Style Monkeez. "Reading it now, it is a bit mortifying," says Hopper of the piece on the latter band. "I did the interview with a friend, and we were in ninth grade and had braces, and here are these dudes in their mid-20s making boner jokes at us, while talking up their vision for their punk-funk band. Towards the end of making issue one, I found out about riot grrrl, so it was half music, half spreading feminist gospel, I guess."
1991: Leslie Ball begins Balls Cabaret, an open-mic night for musicians, poets, jugglers, dancers, playwrights, comedians, etc. The show continues to take place every Saturday at midnight at the Southern Theater.
1991: The 30-piece choir Sounds of Blackness, featuring lead vocalist Ann Nesby, wins a Best Gospel Album Grammy for The Evolution of Gospel. They also have a number one hit on the dance charts with "The Pressure Pt. 1," and another one three years later with "I Believe."
1992: Having spent years working as a barmaid in local nightclubs and VFWs, Arnellia Allen opens her own bar and names it after herself. Arnellia's remains the only nightclub in the state owned by a black woman.
1992: Babes in Toyland—featuring Kat Bjelland, Lori Barbero, and Maureen Herman (who replaced original bassist Michelle Leon)—stand at the fore of an all-girl band explosion, which includes Zuzu's Petals, the Blue Up?, and Big Red Ball. The band plays a free record-release show for its Reprise Records debut Fontanelle in Loring Park the day after drummer Lori Barbero learns that her father has passed away.
City Pages: What do you remember about that Loring Park show?
Lori Barbero: It was really intense, because my father and I weren't the closest but he had made a really huge deal about telling everyone at work and they planned this huge picnic to go down to Loring Park and see me play. He was really excited. So all of his co-workers showed up, like 80 people. They all came down anyway and it was really hard for me. He just suddenly died in his sleep. He'd just turned 55 and he was a marathon runner for 22 years, really healthy and then boom. Honestly, I remember a lot of people being there but I don't remember a lot of other stuff. I just remember seeing a lot of people who helped me, people who meant a lot to me and were there for me.
CP:Early on, the band faced some harsh criticism from the local press. Was this show a turning point for you?
Barbero: Yeah, even the Walker said it was one of their biggest. We played for free for the longest time. I think the turning point was when Sonic Youth took us to Europe with them. If we were endorsed by Sonic Youth, then we were okay. We came back from touring and we started getting paid, because we had some street cred. For the most part, we've been respected and I'm grateful for it. Sure, at first when we were playing, it was a novelty, but I don't think that anyone would have come to the second or third or 500th show if we weren't actually doing something right.
CP:You joined the Lollapalooza tour the next year. Did you have a favorite stop?
Barbero: A really super cool one was the first show in Vancouver. I remember meeting Timothy Leary and he really loved us. He said, "Can I go onstage and announce you guys?" And we said, "Of course!" He was on the whole West Coast tour, speaking in one of the tents. So every day he would get onstage [before our set] and he would just rant and rave. That was really amazing.
1993: Janitor Joe tour in support of their debut album Big Metal Birds. At a show in California, bassist Kristen Pfaff meets Courtney Love and Eric Erlanson, who ask her to join Hole. Pfaff moves to Seattle and records Live Through This with the new band, but soon becomes an early entry on the list of people who don't get along with Love, and decides to quit. She plans on moving back to Minnesota, but dies of a heroin overdose the night before she is supposed to return.
1995: Former Breeders guitarist Kelley Deal checks into Hazelden. Once out, she moves to St. Paul, forms the Kelley Deal 6000 (which spawns rumors that Deal is swiping musicians from local bands Adjustable Boy and Deformo), and records Go to the Sugar Altar.
1996: All the Pretty Horses play their first show at Boomers in downtown Minneapolis. Initially, Venus DeMars is the band's only transgendered member, which doesn't seem to bother the audience. "It was mostly friends, and they of course were supportive," says DeMars. "There were about 15 regulars there and they were cool with it, though it wasn't as flamboyant as the current ATPH. I wore full makeup, long hair, and very gender-neutral clothes, so I definitely caused confusion."
1998: Mary Lucia begins hosting Popular Creeps on Zone 105. The interviewer becomes known for asking local musicians questions like, "If you lost both your arms in an accident and had to choose between having Chihuahua paws surgically attached or having no arms at all, which would you prefer?"
2000: Having proven her chops as guitarist and lead singer in Lefty Lucy and the Selby Tigers, Arzu Gokcen creates Staraoke, giving wannabe rockstars a spotlight and a catalog of pop, glam, and punk songs at the Turf Club Clown Lounge each week.
2002: The Soviettes revive female punk in the Twin Cities (albeit with a dude on drums). Club owners, radio DJs, and music writers vote them the best new band in City Pages' Picked to Click poll. That year, they also sign to Adeline Records, a label started by Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong.
2003: Sabor Tropical singer Maya Lopez-Santamaria, who has been booking Salsa nights at the Quest and First Avenue, decides that the Twin Cities need a club by Latinos and for Latinos. She and her husband Nicholas open El Nuevo Rodeo. A historian of Latin music in Minnesota, Lopez-Santamaria had written and directed Los Rumbaleros, a musical based on the lives of the Rangel sisters that was performed at the Great American History Theater in 2001.
2005: Intermedia Arts hosts the B-Girl Be Summit, the first local conference for ladies in hip hop. The event brings together DJs, MCs, breakdancers, graffiti artists, and academics from all over the country, while artists like Desdamona, Sarah White, Dessa, and Maria Isa represent the Twin Cities' burgeoning scene.
2005: The Maria Schneider Orchestra, led by the modern classical composer, takes home a Grammy in the Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album category for Concert in the Garden. The album, which was pressed in a limited run of 10,000 copies sold solely online, was the first to receive the award without conventional retail distribution.
2005: Jordis Unga appears on Rock Star: INXS. The 22-year-old St. Paul bartender makes it to the top five finalists before being sent home. Following the show, Jordis jams with Camp Freddy, an L.A. group featuring Dave Navarro, and is invited to perform at the opening of the Muhammad Ali Center. She has an album coming out on Epic Records this spring.
1980: Lisa Coleman joins the Revolution on keyboards for the Dirty Mind tour. Three years later, when guitarist Dez Dickerson becomes a born-again Christian and quits owing to issues with Prince's sexually explicit songwriting, Coleman suggests her childhood friend Wendy Melvoin as a replacement.
1982: Prince tries to convince his girlfriend Denise Matthews to take on the stage name "Vagina" and start an all-girl group called the Hookers. Matthews refuses, but a compromise finds her rechristened "Vanity" and leading Vanity 6, a group featuring Brenda Bennett and Susan Moonsie. The following year, the trio has a hit with "Nasty Girl," and Matthews prepares to play Prince's love interest in Purple Rain. (Prince's stage-humping claims another convert a decade later, when Matthews also goes born-again.)
1984: When Vanity leaves the group to start a solo career, Apollonia (a.k.a. Patricia Kotero) joins Bennett and Moonsie to form Apollonia 6. Not only does Kotero replace Matthews in Purple Rain, but the new group's "Sex Shooter" becomes a hit on the film's soundtrack. Kotero leaves the group a year later for a role on Falcon Crest.
1990: Ingrid Chavez costars in Graffiti Bridge. Two years later, she sues Lenny Kravitz, who'd taken credit for writing Madonna's "Justify My Love," despite Chavez's having written all but one line of the song's lyrics. The case is settled out of court in exchange for a songwriting credit and an undisclosed amount of money. Kravitz faces further ridicule after it's discovered that the song's drums were lifted from Public Enemy's "Security of the First World."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.